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Air Guns Explained

Air Guns ExplainedAir Guns Explained is intended primarily for the beginner trying to sort through the dizzying array of air guns available on the market today. You may have heard of each of the various types of air guns, but are confused as to the differences between BB guns, pellet guns, airsoft guns and paintball guns. Generally speaking, all of these guns can be classified as air guns. However, airsoft and paintball are usually grouped into classifications of their own. None of these are considered firearms, at least not by the BATF (Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms).

BB Guns
The term BB guns is generally used today to categorize air guns that shoot the traditional 0.177 caliber steel BBs. These BBs are spherical in shape and are typically coated with copper or zinc for rust protection. Propulsion of the BB projectile can be generated from a number of options, depending on the gun. The traditional method is via spring piston where a cocking action causes the piston to compress a spring. A pull of the trigger releases the piston and propels the BB. The cocking action could be a engaging a lever or bolt or perhaps a sliding trombone action of the rifle forearm. Other BB guns utilize compressed air via pump action, referred to as single pump or multi-pump pneumatics. Typically the forearm of the rifle is pumped up and down in a swing action or slid back and forth. Air is compressed into a chamber and released upon pulling the trigger providing power to propel the BB projectile. A slightly more modern means of BB propulsion, initiated by the Crosman Corporation about 60 years ago, is the use of CO2 gas. The CO2 gas is contained in cartridges small enough to fit into the BB gun. These CO2 cartridges require replacement when the CO2 gas runs out. CO2 technology is most commonly found in BB pistols. BB guns are mostly recommended for target shooting or backyard plinking. One last thing to note regarding BB Guns. Never shoot a BB gun at a hard flat surface. The BBs will ricochet and may cause serious injury.

Pellet Guns
Pellet Guns are very similar to BB guns, but are far more versatile. Pellet guns fire pellets of varying sizes, depending on the specific gun purchased. The pellets come in a variety of shapes and weights as well, designed for accuracy and/or power. Typical sizes are .177 cal, .22 cal and .25 cal. Like BB guns, pellet guns can employ spring piston, pump pneumatics or CO2 as its power source. For pellet guns, other propulsion methods are also available, such as Precharged Pneumatics (PCP) and gas piston technology. Precharged Pneumatics requires the guns air reservoir to be precharged or filled with a hand pump or scuba tank prior to shooting. The PCP gun is typically capable of firing several shots per fill. Gas piston technology relies on nitrogen gas, compressed by a piston as opposed to the spring piston which compresses a spring. Gas piston guns utilize a break barrel cocking action to compress the nitrogen gas. Pellet guns are not only made for plinking and target shooting but also for small game hunting and competitive shooting. Hunting rifles can pack a lot more power than the old BB gun. Larger caliber pellets allow for the take down of larger sized critters such as raccoons. Competitive air rifles, made with accuracy in mind, are used for high school competition on up to the Olympic level. Pellet guns tend to be more expensive than BB guns because they offer more power and accuracy. Some pellet guns can run into the thousands of dollars for competitive or hunting models.

Airsoft Guns
Airsoft is a whole niche of its own. Airsoft guns are made to fire plastic airsoft BBs, commonly 6mm in size. They are typically sold with an orange tip at the muzzle for safety reasons. Because airsoft guns can closely resemble actual firearms, the orange tip helps to distinguish it from the real thing. Airsoft guns generally fire at less velocity than pellet guns. Because of this and the plastic make up of the BBs, they are less likely to cause serious bodily injury. They tend to be favored by parents. More serious airsoft aficionados engage in tactical simulaton battles and participate in competitive leagues. Players can be assigned tactical designations or positions and be assigned a specific type of airsoft gun. Airsoft guns, like their firearm counterparts, come in differing types; assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and pistols being the most common. Airsoft guns are also powered by different sources, the most basic being spring. Many of the sniper rifles and shotguns utilize spring power. Like BB and pellet guns, CO2 power is also an option. There is also another type of gas known as “Green Gas” that is widely used. Unlike CO2, which comes in insertable cartridges, Green Gas is typically filled into the magazine of the gun. The most popular type of airsoft gun used in tactical simulation is the AEG (Automatic Electric Gun) assault rifle which utilizes battery power. At a minimum, eye protection should be required for participation in airsoft games.

Paintball Guns
Similar to airsoft, paintball is a classification unto its own. Paintball guns are characterized by the use of paintball ammo, spherical BBs filled with dye encased in a gelatin shell that bursts upon contact. The paintball gun or marker as it is also referred to, is distinguished by the paintball hopper fitted on top of the gun which feeds the paintballs down into the body. Common propulsion methods include the use of CO2, compressed air or nitrogen gas. Paintball guns are used in recreational battles or simulations. Like airsoft, there are many leagues specifically for paintball game play. Unlike airsoft, a paintball hit can be more traumatic, often leaving a welt or bruise in unprotected areas. The use of masks and/or goggles is imperative. Also unlike airsoft, the paintball gun is not typically made to resemble a real firearm. Performance is more important to the serious paintball player.

Determine what category of air guns suits your interest and go from there. As my teacher used to say, “Clear as mud.”


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The Air Gun Glossary consists of commonly used terms and abbreviations used in the world of air guns.

Airsoft Glossary
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